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The Richeys of Dallas are a family consumed by a single passion that binds them together and gives meaning to their lives. The passion is tennis, although it seems not to matter what it is—it could be music or politics or cocker spaniels—because the significant aspect is the extent of the family's commitment. It is natural enough that the dedication is to tennis, for George and Betty Richey are both teaching professionals and their children Nancy and Cliff are among the top amateur players in the world. But for the Richeys tennis has long been more than simply vocational, more than a game.
The Richeys' love for tennis and each other—they are a joyously happy family—is so overwhelming that it has both isolated and insulated them. "Often we don't realize that things we say or do strike other people as different," George Richey says. "We are so close and we live with such a common purpose that sometimes, why, we just forget how other people may look at us."
The family lives in an atmosphere of despotic togetherness, believing in each other and especially in George, whose firm control is directed by an overriding concern for his children's success. Toward that end he will subjugate himself completely, even if it means abandoning parental dignity and authority. When practicing with his father, Cliff—who is still in his teens—will snarl appallingly rude abuse: "Shut up and just hit me the ball!" Or: "Well, I don't want to quit, so stay there and hit me some more!" But George Richey takes it because he believes that Cliff must release his tensions in this way. "I do nothing but try to please him and give him what he wants," he told an old Houston friend a short time ago.
George and Betty travel almost everywhere in this country to see their children play but, though George Richey is a tough little man, he is afraid of airplanes and never has been in one. So the Richeys tour the country in their 1959 Cadillac, carting the kids from tournament to tournament. In the summer they take their vacation from the swank Brook Hollow Golf Club, where Richey is the tennis pro, and make a long circuit. "I guess we've never had a real vacation," Betty Richey says, as if the thought had occurred to her for the first time. "I mean, everywhere we go there is tennis, a tournament or something."
Anyway, there is always practice. Nancy and Cliff practice incessantly, hours every day, and they go at each other without compassion. "We never play what Daddy calls 'giggle tennis,' " says Nancy. (Giggle tennis encompasses just about all tennis not played in the determined Richey manner.) The family has stopped the car on a whim to practice on a strange court. Nancy and Cliff have gotten off a plane and practiced at midnight. They have rallied long hours in the tropical midday sun when every other tour player was asleep or sunning. The two kids invariably practice before a match, and often they start hitting at dusk after both have played singles and doubles that day. "I need some grooving," Cliff will whine, and there go all the Richeys, changing clothes, picking up tennis paraphernalia, charging into action just like down at the firehouse. "Just that extra 15 to 20 minutes can make the difference," George Richey says, explaining it all. Then they will go home, or to whatever hotel they are staying at, and talk about tennis till it is time to go to sleep.
Many people consider the Richeys' attitude odd, but the Richeys are singularly proud of themselves and their accomplishments. They are straightforward, pragmatic people, firmly believing that discipline, competition and victory offer greater rewards than a more prosaic life. The results seem to bear them out.
Nancy Richey, 22, has grown up to be an attractive woman, the best player of her sex in the U.S. and the fourth best in the world. Cliff Richey is 18 and still maturing, but already he is ranked 11th among U.S. men. Since these ratings were made, his performances indicate that he now should be listed no worse than fifth.
It has, of course, occurred to George Richey that someday his two children may both be ranked as the world's best, and it is a thought he relishes not only as a father. Being a teaching professional, he is just as proud of Nancy and Cliff as pupils as he is of them as children. Before Nancy and Cliff grew up, Richey's best pupil was Tut Bartzen, who was a high-ranked U.S. player a few years ago. Richey discovered Bartzen in San Angelo, Texas when Bartzen, as a kid, would come down and watch for hours as Richey played. Richey admired the boy's interest, took him on and taught him everything he knew. Eight years ago, when he was at his peak, Bartzen said, " George Richey is a thoroughly fine person who adores the game. It's his whole life. He is not in teaching for the money but because tennis means so much to him. His only interest is in helping my game. He will stay out as long as I want and do anything I want." That could be Cliff Richey talking now.
Undoubtedly, part of George Richey's fanatical interest in his pupils is the vicarious thrill he gets from their success. He is, of course, most dedicated to the life of his only son. "It's a good thing I came first or I never would have gotten any attention," Nancy says, joking, but the rest of the family, George included, agree she is not just kidding.
As a boy in San Angelo, George Richey was a boxer and an outstanding baseball prospect, good enough at 13 to pitch against 18-year-olds in American Legion ball. At 14, however, he injured his right elbow when he fell out of an automobile, and in a lengthy, complicated convalescence he took up tennis, the only one-armed sport he knew of. Even today the only thing George Richey does left-handed is play tennis.